- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - A generation of Americans, now adults, grew up playing in sandboxes.

The structures, which fostered the creative energy of thousands of future architects, geologists and geographers have fallen out of popularity in the past few decades, largely disappearing from playgrounds around the nation. The playground structure might be making a resurgence with the help of 21st century technology, however.

Sandboxes are making a comeback - thanks in part to the work of a professor of geological data visualization at University of California Davis, Oliver Kreylos.

Representatives from the University of Alaska’s Geographic Information Network of Alaska debuted their own version of Kreylos’ project Tuesday for the Alaska Conference on Surveying and Mapping at the Westmark Hotel.

Will Fisher and Greg Wirth both work with the information network. They stood behind a sandbox just a few square feet in diameter Tuesday in the Westmark as adult conference-goers oohed and aahed. It wasn’t the sand itself that drew the oohs from the crowd, though.

It was what Fisher and Wirth had projected atop the sand that drew the interest of passers-by.

A topographical map lays atop the sand, projected from above by a projector. Like a quadrangle map from the United States Geological Survey, Fisher and Wirth’s topographical projection shows the contour lines of the miniature mountains and hills of the sandbox.

If someone pushes the sand in the box up to form a large mound, that mound appears on the overlay like a large mountain, ranging up above the surrounding lowlands.

“This is the translator between looking at 3-dimensional topography and looking at a flat map, a map that’s got all these squiggles and lines on it,” said Eric Stevens, a science liaison with the geographic information network.

“The first time you look at a topographic map and then you look out at a landscape, do you know how to connect the two? It can be tough.”

The concept is called an augmented-reality sandbox. Essentially, the team said, it is meant to help connect the often confusing world of topographic maps to an environment people can see for themselves.

“A person can literally get hands on and see how these topography lines change when you change the landscape,” Stevens said. “This is a teaching tool to connect people to know how to interpret these human-made paper maps with the real world.”

When Wirth holds his hand above eight inches above the sand, the projector reads it as a cloud and begins dropping rain onto the landscape below. The valleys fill with virtual water and flow down from the top of the mountains in channels.

Fisher, Wirth and Dayne Broderson got the idea to create their own version of the sandbox after Broderson’s brother saw a video on the Internet, Wirth said. They got the open-source software Kreyos had created and made available. From there, all they needed was a Microsoft Kinnect, a projector, some spare parts and - of course - sand.

The project itself only took them a couple weeks to complete, Fisher said. The software, which runs on Linux, required a bit of tweaking for their purposes, and the mounting of the Kinnect and projector took some time, as well. Overall, however, the two said the project was relatively simple.

The information network team was able to secure funding for the project through the EPSCoR-ACE program at UAF. EPSCoR stands for Experimental Program to Stimulate competitive Research and ACE stands for Adapting to changing Environments. The program focuses, in part, on the shifting environments in different parts of Alaska and how communities adapt to those changes.

“We try to come up with ways to communicate what we’re doing to the people in those communities and try to work with the people in those communities to see what they’re interested in,” said Tania Clucas, the EPSCoR-ACE’s education outreach and diversity manager. “(The sandbox) lines up with our education and outreach activities, because we try to get the public engaged and interested in science, and it’s a way that we can show them what we’re doing.”

EPSCoR-ACE provided Fisher and Wirth’s group with up to $8,000 to complete their vision. The sandbox team used some scrap parts for the project.

The sandbox they’ve brought to the conference is just a prototype. They hope to create a more polished and mobile version they can take to science fairs and museums. Fisher and Wirth will be showing off the sandbox in the Westmark during exhibit hours at the conference throughout the week.

Project participants from EPSCoR and GINA hope the sandbox will generate interest among both adults and children.

Fisher and Wirth said they also hope to polish the user interface for the program so they can help make it available to any teachers or parents or interested sandbox owners who want to create their own augmented-reality sandbox.

For local students who want to try their hand at world building, the sandbox will make an appearance April 12 at University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Science Pot Pourri.

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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